Monday, September 26, 2011

Should Committees Report to the Board?

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I've been thinking a lot about this question lately. It's a question, I know, that never even occurs to leaders in many associations. "Should committees report to the board?" they might say. "Of course they should. Who else are the going to report to?"


How about the chief staff executive?

I've suggested just such an idea before, and the looks I get back from chief staff executives and board chairs alike can only be described as incredulous.

But hear me out.

There are some committees whose jobs clearly relate to the governance of the association. The Finance Committee. The Nominating Committee. The Executive Committee. These are all bodies appropriately appointed by the Board to help it do its job better.

But there are other committees whose jobs relate to the management of the association. The Education Committee. The Membership Committee. The Marketing Committee. These are all bodies designed to infuse the management practices of the association with the expertise and wisdom of association members themselves.

If your association is an association of widget manufacturers, then you might want widget manufacturers on your Marketing Committee to help you decide how best to market your association to other widget manufacturers. If your association is an association of physicians, then you might want physicians on your Education Committee to help you decide what kind of education to deliver to your members. In most associations, this type of industry- or profession-specific expertise does not exist at the staff level, and the synergistic fusing of member knowledge with staff functional expertise can spell great success.

But in all of these cases, the functions of these "program" committees are not related to how the association is governed (i.e., the purview of the board). They are related to how the association is managed (i.e., the purview of the chief staff executive). And if that is the case, shouldn't these committees "report" to the chief staff executive, the way other members of the staff do? In fact, doesn't having those committees report to the board put the board in the position of having to manage the association, usurping the position and authority it has specifically delegated to its chief staff executive?

These are the thoughts I think about whenever I sit in a board meeting and find myself trapped in a discussion about the details of some committee report. Committee X wants funds to produce a new marketing brochure. Committee Y wants approval on the venues it has chosen for next year's educational sessions.

I can't help it. As a board member, my first question when faced with these requests is always: Why are you asking me? I don't manage this association. The chief staff executive does.

And I'd prefer to keep it that way.


  1. It's a great question Eric. Seems like the answer should be formulated based on what is the purpose of the reporting relationship and who is best positioned to fulfill that function, and as you note, many times that is the CEO (or at least the staff). Any concerns this might cause the Board could certainly be addressed through the committee policies and the charges given to committees when formed.

  2. The question you need to always ask is who is responsible ultimately if a committee goes on a tangent and drives down a path not consistent with the mission and objectives as set by the Board? The Board is. They are the controlling and policy setting force in any association. I think committees should report their findings and any funding requests to the board. However, remember, the committee is reporting to the board and the board should only make comments to the committee as to bringing their innovative thinking in line with the vision of the association, but they SHOULD NOT do the work of the committee. That is why you have the committee. I want my committees reporting to the board so they answer to their peers with my input. That can add pressure to get things done as well as takes the heat off of the CEO when the Committee wants to go another direction. If they report to you, guess what... now you are in the middle and on the hot seat.

  3. Good question Eric. But, I think there is a bigger question, other than standing committees we need for legal/fiscal purposes, could the question be, why do we need committees? I think having volunteer SME's assisting on projects, and being part of volunteer project teams is is essential, but I personally think it is time for us to completely re-evaluate the governance model that has standing committees and look to more the corporate open management models of team/project leaders.

  4. Good comments all. Thanks.

    Jeffrey - That's exactly the point I'm trying to make with the post. Committees that help the board better govern the association should report to the board. But committees that help the association manage and execute its programs should report to the CSE, because that's who is supposed to be in charge of management and program execution.

    Tom - I can see how the peer relationship between board members and committee members can help with resolving some issues of mission creep and driving down tangents. But I can also see how those relationships can exacerbate the same problems when peers shy away from confronting each other on tough issues. When the board sets the strategic objectives and delegates the resources and authority necessary to pursue them to the CSE, I think there is frankly less chance for committees to drive down tangents. The role and function of each committee would be part of that delegation process, and the CSE is in a better position to more frequently reinforce those objectives with any wayward committee.

    Michael - I'm using the term "committee" in a very generic sense. Task forces and volunteer project teams are often a better way to go, especially when framed in the model I just described above.

  5. I think all committees should report to the board, otherwise there may be a communication divide. Committees are often re elected annually so someone needs to account for the past and create continuity.

  6. Thanks, Jody. I am admittedly talking about an organizational structure much different from one in which committees are elected by the membership to fulfill certain functions in the organization. In an association entirely "staffed" by volunteers, that may make some sense. But even in those situations, I question whether committees to determine the strategy or if the strategy should determine the committees. First decide what is to be accomplished, then decided how it is to be done, and committees are more appropriately positioned as a mechanism to achieve the latter.